Spirit Airlines alleges conspiracy because it can’t pretend airfares are $9

Alec Baldwin as American Airlines pilot on Saturday Night Live

Airfares were in disguise before today, but we can spot bad behavior

It’s a welcome development. As of today, travel vendors are required by the Department of Transportation to include taxes and fuel surcharges right up front when the price of the ticket is quoted. No more will shoppers experience that painful price jump when they click through the final purchase screen. All unavoidable expenses are incorporated from the start.

This change finally makes base price the same as cost. It also makes purchasing travel sensible, like purchasing stuff in Europe: The amount on the price tag is what you pay.

It has always been one of the cornerstones of American hucksterism. Businesses love separating the price from the true cost because it makes a sale more appealing. Never mind the fact it’s a lie. Everyone pays the full cost, not only the base price.

So of course some of the big vendors have been responding to the change to “teaser fares” with some weasel-like email messages. Don’t they know that travelers are thrilled? Why apologize?

Air-hotel packager Go-Today.com explains it this way: “Consumers should be aware that fares have not increased; they simply reflect a difference in how pricing is displayed.” That’s the bottom line, and it’s true. But other companies are editorializing, and that’s where they step in it.

Sleazy Spirit Airlines has made a business out of making the cost of airfare seem lower than it truly is. It has had its wrist slapped by the DOT already for deceptive advertising. (I hope the DOT scrubbed thoroughly afterward.) Unsurprisingly, the airline, which builds out the true costs of travel by charging even for carry-ons, tried to spin the new rule as an erosion of American justice, saying it is being forced “to hide” taxes in your ticket quotes now.

Spirit’s fear-mongering email is typical of the false victimhood that hucksters hide behind these days:

New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares.

This is not consumer-friendly or in your best interest. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t stand for it.

Starting January 24, 2012, fares are distorted.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest fare rules, Spirit must now HIDE the government’s taxes and fees in your fares.

If the government can hide taxes in your airfares, then they [sic] can carry out their [sic] hidden agenda and quietly increase their [sic] taxes. (Yes, such talks are already underway.)

“They can carry out their hidden agenda”? I’d put on my tinfoil hat, but Spirit would charge me extra to carry it on. You’d think the Boston Tea Party took place on an Airbus. It’s not fooling customers who know the issue is not about taxation but about advertising deceptive prices, a charge that it paid a fine for.

Spirit alleges a federal conspiracy because it can’t pretend airfares cost $9 anymore. California’s Sen. Barbara Boxer is having the company for lunch, and rightfully so. It’s detestable and disingenuous to manipulate customers into believing that their liberties are eroding when the only thing eroding is Spirit’s ability to deceive them with impunity. Since it has built its business model on the old bait-and-switch, of course it’s mad. It also has to pretend that the way it’s been misleading you all this time has been just.

Booking Buddy sent me this [emphasis mine]:

BookingBuddy Traveler,

Starting today, January 26, 2012, the Department of Transportation is requiring airlines and online travel agencies to include all mandatory taxes and fees when advertising fares. This is a big win for travelers.

We wanted to alert you to this as it will make flights and vacation packages appear more expensive than you may be used to. In reality, you are simply seeing more of the taxes and fees up front. Base prices themselves are not increasing, and the taxes and fees are the same…

The way Booking Buddy breaks the news makes me wonder: Well, if it’s so great for travelers, then why weren’t all the vendors doing it before today?

Is it because up until today, they didn’t care much about what would be great for travelers?

I give credit to the few third-party booking sites that were adding in mandatory fees to begin with, including Kayak and TripAdvisor. Add those guys to the top of your browser bookmarks because they were being frank with you anyway.

They didn’t need partial or incremental disclosure to make sales more attractive — and didn’t require the wrath of the government to quote costs fully.

3 Responses to “Spirit Airlines alleges conspiracy because it can’t pretend airfares are $9”

  1. sAvio

    (I’m ranting – please excuse any errors) Yeah they may be whining but do you see what they are saying. So lets say an airline advertised a fare at $140. Maybe in a month a security fee is increased by $20…NOT the air fare. Now they have to advertise the fare for $160. Unknown to you is the fare has gone by $20 because of an increase on the security fee, overall you would just believe “oh the airline raised their fare”. That’s what I believe they are saying.

    Remember this same airline that offered “free” flights several years ago….only catch was you had to pay the taxes on the flights to travel. Well think about….if they tried to offer free flights now…..how would they do it….?? The airfare is $0, but because the new rules (based on roundtrip from New York to Ft. Lauderdale) they would have to advertise $148.36. But its free?….not according to your government 🙂

    • Jason Cochran

      I think I see what you’re saying. Personally, I think the airlines brought this rule on themselves by unpacking so many standard services and charging them as extra fees. It seems as if they were deliberately trying to bewilder consumers and distract them from the real number they were probably going to have to pay. You and I may be savvy passengers, but someone’s grandmother, or someone who doesn’t travel a lot, would not be aware there are taxes, baggage fees, and other necessary (for them) costs. The airlines brought anger upon themselves by reducing advertised fares to a price that would always be impossible to attain.

      If there is an unfairness in this new rule, it’s that other markets, such as clothing and books and food, don’t have to advertise this way. I would prefer that tax is ALWAYS included. But on the other hand, customers weighing a purchase in those industries will always have a standard expectation of what the additional cost would be. We essentially know to tack on a little more for tax when we buy anything. For the airlines, though, we never really could anticipate all the costs at the outset, and that was intentional on their part.